Arizona special election results spell trouble for California Republicans

Congressman Steve Knight

Republicans desperately dumped a ton of money into the Arizona race, and the seat still swung 32 points toward Democrats.

The special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District is over, and the Republican candidate, former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, managed a slim victory over Democrat Hiral Tipirneni.

But it was a win that came at a steep cost, and presents red flags for California Republicans.

The district, vacated last year after Rep. Trent Franks resigned over a sexual harassment scandal, should never have been competitive. Situated in the northwest suburbs of Phoenix and including the Sun City retirement community, the district’s residents are overwhelmingly old, white, and Republican — a solid Trump demographic.

In 2016, Trump carried the district by 21 points, and Franks himself carried it by 37 points. Democrats haven’t even bothered fielding a candidate there since 2012. But on Tuesday, Lesko only won the district by 5 points — a whopping 32 point swing toward Democrats. In fact, out of 142 precincts in the district, Republicans underperformed their 2016 margin in 140 of them.

According to Cook Political Report, Arizona’s 8th District is a more Republican-leaning area than Orange County. While Orange County may have once been a GOP stronghold, it is rapidly changing. Voter preferences are changing, as evidenced by the fact that O.C. supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, the first Democrat to win there in 80 years. Two O.C. Republicans, Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, saw the writing on the wall and already decided to abandon efforts to run for re-election in 2018.

But Congresswoman Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) are vying to keep their seats, despite mounting evidence of a blue wave on the horizon. Congressman Steve Knight, a Republican who occupies a district in north Los Angeles County and was recently named the most at-risk Republican incumbent in the country, is also facing an uphill slog in a district that now has more Democratic voters than Republicans.

The amount of money and effort deployed in Arizona shows what Walters, Rohrabacher, and Knight will be dealing with.

Trump endorsed Lesko and made robocalls on her behalf. House Speaker Paul Ryan held a fundraiser for her in D.C last week. And the party spent a lot of money to hold on to the seat: over $1 million, $900,000 of which came from the RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Money will certainly be a factor in California races. Knight has been outraised two consecutive quarters by Democratic challenger Katie Hill, and is in need of outside Republican support to maintain parity. Rohrabacher and Walters have their own fundraising struggles, with both having opponents with sizeable campaign war chests.

Walters, for her part, prioritized rubbing elbows with Republican donors at a glitzy Texas gathering with Ryan rather than meet with her own constituents. While she made time for that event, she hasn’t held an in-person town hall in her district in more than 550 days.

The issues in the race should give California Republicans pause.

Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, ran an unapologetically progressive campaign, championing health care expansion and opposing the GOP tax bill.

Health care continues to be a major issue for voters in 2018, especially health care costs. Republican policies put in place over the last year are having devastating consequences, with health care premiums expected to increase by up to 30 percent in California next year. Around the country, some states will see increases of up to 94 percent in the next three years.

The unpopular Republican tax bill, championed by Knight and Walters, proved to be a dud, both in terms of economic impact and political impact. Republicans in a recent Pennsylvania special election abandoned advertising about the tax bill because voters knew it was a bad deal.  Promises of an economic boom have largely fizzled, leaving Americans with more than $1 trillion of additional debt. Tying themselves to the tax bill, as Knight and Walters have done, has not proven to be a winning electoral strategy in recent special elections.

“Regardless of the exact outcome,” tweeted the New York Times’ Nate Cohn about the Arizona race, “this is just another terrible special election result for Republicans. Zero excuse, given the permanent absentee list. And you’re feeling great if you’re, say, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona.”

“There just aren’t any excuses,” Cohn continued. “The Republican wasn’t Roy Moore. The Democrat wasn’t Conor Lamb. The turnout wasn’t low. The district doesn’t have, say, a latent Democratic tradition. It oddly has the effect of making all the prior excuses seem less relevant, too.”

Republicans won this battle. But the numbers make very clear that they are losing the war, and should be worried come November.

Dan Desai Martin contributed to this article.